Aug. 10 2006 12:29 PM

As a 13-year-old apprentice, Richard Robert Donnelley discovered his love for printing. He was fascinated by the printing industry's quest for precision, intricate mechanics and potential for beauty. Donnelley viewed printing as a craft or an art form. However, tracking R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company's innovations throughout its history shows that the company approaches the business more as a science.


Since the days when Abraham Lincoln was president, R.R. Donnelley has been an innovator in the printing and content-management industry. In 1864, when the company was known as "Church, Goodman and Donnelley" (and later the Lakeside Printing Company), it produced 23 weekly, monthly and quarterly publications as well as a variety of books.


Over the years, the company has set the benchmark for printing quality and enhanced the speed with which products were brought to market. The creation of an Industrial Engineering Department in the early 1910s showed its clear commitment to developing advancements in printing and binding technology. Today, hundreds of engineers at its facility west of Chicago develop new techniques to work more efficiently and produce more technologically advanced products. In all, the creativity of the company's employees has led to nearly 200 patents.


The creation of heatset printing stands apart as one example of how R.R. Donnelley developed technology that revolutionized the industry. It all began when an International Printing Inks (I.P.I) sales representative called on an R.R. Donnelley purchasing agent to tell him of his company's new ink that could be dried quickly with heat. Through experimentation, the two companies developed equipment that would dry ink as the web of machine-coated paper passed through the press, greatly enhancing the speed with which magazines could be printed.


The company began displaying its new heatset process to customers around 1934 around the same time Time magazine publisher Henry Luce was dreaming up a new four-color weekly magazine that would feature timely pictures of world events. Through this new heatset technology, Luce had a way to make his vision reality. LIFE magazine debuted in November 1936 and became a part of Americana for decades.


R.R. Donnelley has also proved nimble through its production of weekly news magazines and other timely material. One of the company's most famous examples of its flexibility to meet customer needs began in 1963. On the afternoon of November 22, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas. The editors of LIFE magazine quickly realized that their latest issue hundreds of thousands of copies of which were already being shipped from R.R. Donnelley facilities had to be scrapped. Instead of the Naval Academy's star quarterback, Roger Staubach, gracing the cover, editors shifted the magazine's focus to a portrait of the late president. To accommodate this defining moment in history, the presses started again at 3:30 AM on Sunday, only to be halted once more when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald that afternoon. Once a wire photo was added to the form, the printing process rolled again and finally LIFE magazine made it to the newsstands just a day late, despite losing three days of production time.


Also in the 60s, magazine publishers were finding it difficult to compete with the popularity of television advertising. Because of this, R.R. Donnelley developed the process of selectronic binding. This process involves electronically sorting and then binding specific pages to produce different versions of the same magazine. Advertisers and publishers were now able to target messages to pre-determined audiences. Messages could be tailored to specific demographic characteristics represented by a particular customer database or to the geo-demographic lifestyle characteristics represented by a particular ZIP Code. Some members of the advertising community assert that selectronic binding "reinvented magazine advertising."


The printer continued to refine its selectronic binding services over the years with an offering called the Maverick system. The Maverick controller allows for up to 12 inkjet printheads to be placed on a line, and it enables a publisher to completely customize a full page of content through its unique control technology. This technology enables a publisher to insert last-minute breaking stories or highly regionalized and personalized sales specials into magazines or catalogs minutes before they are bundled for shipment to their final destination.


In 1990, the company expanded its offerings to include distribution services. Originally, the company formed R.R. Donnelley Logistics to distribute its print materials. Soon, the business unit expanded its services to ship not just customers' catalogs and magazines but also the merchandise purchased through those publications.


In the same decade, the company established Premedia Technologies to provide content-management services in the evolving digital age and rise of the Internet. The Premedia Technologies group provides solutions for customers to create, prepare and manage content for both print and online distribution. Services include photography, both conventional and digital; asset management; and prepress services.


The 90s also brought a number of innovative methods for transforming content into final printed product including digital print, computer-to-plate and new press technology. In 1993, the company purchased, tested and installed the first M3000 offset press.

Late last year, R.R. Donnelley Logistics began leveraging Web-enabled technology to develop a new package-tracking system for catalog customers. Through DirecTrace, catalog customer service representatives are able to track packages off the U.S. Postal Service's Web site, as well as their companys' home page. With StoreFront Tracking, shipping information can be directly fed into a catalog's site, allowing consumers to track their own deliveries. Online catalogers are enabled to provide consumers real-time delivery information and benefit from the increased traffic driven to their site.


Today, the company's leaders contend that long-run commercial printing will remain the core of their business for many years. However, they contend that effectively managing the changing landscape surrounding the printing press is a key to the future growth of the company and the industry as a whole. In other words, the art of printing will never disappear; however, today's success relies on managing the evolving science that supports it.


Christine Burger Olson is marketing communications manager for R.R. Donnelley in Chicago, Illinois. For more information on R.R. Donnelley, visit